More countries should follow international disaster law to ensure efficient delivery of international aid, say experts.
"Too often, this life-saving assistance is delayed by bureaucratic bottlenecks," Elyse Mosquini, a Geneva-based senior advocacy officer of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told IRIN.
International disaster law, the legal instruments that provide guidance on how disaster assistance should work, "is the closest thing we have to a rule book on how disaster response operations should be managed across borders", says Oliver Lacey-Hall, Asia head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA).
The IFRC's International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (IDRL) programme developed the Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance, introduced in 2007.
"The guidelines aim to provide guidance to governments on how to reduce red tape and strengthen accountability," adds Lacey-Hall.
But unfortunately countries do not think about needing external help until it becomes an immediate reality, experts say. Only nine countries have passed IDRL-based domestic legislation - Finland, Indonesia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Peru, the Philippines and US.
Experts say more countries need to act fast and follow their examples.
"Sadly it seems that usually it requires a disaster to focus minds on putting such regulations into place," he told IRIN.
Mosquini urged states to move before the next disaster strikes.
"One only has to look at the increasing number and scale of natural disasters over the past several years to recognize the urgency of action in this area," she warns.
Among the stumbling blocks covered are issues such as visas for aid workers, customs and taxes, and an overall need for coordination.
"There have been a number of cases where visas have taken time to obtain," says Sarah Ireland, regional director for Oxfam East Asia.
Myanmar notoriously refused to give visas to aid workers for weeks following Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
"We want to bring in legitimate resources like people and goods quickly, to get these in within the first two weeks," Ireland said.
Problems with visas can also arise once the immediate disaster response has passed: "It is often easier to get a visa during the first week of an emergency, but weeks into the response operations the procedures are not only back to basics, but the system is often clogged up by the many requests from international organizations," notes Jesper Lund, humanitarian affairs officer at the Emergency Services Branch of UN-OCHA, based in Geneva.
The IDRL recommendations include granting or waiving visas and work permits for aid workers; recognizing driver's licences and qualifications of doctors, engineers; and making an effort to hire local staff as much as possible.
Customs and taxes
"Stories of relief shipments delayed at customs processing points for months after they would have been useful are well known," Mosquini says.
"There are two issues in customs," adds Ireland. "One is being allowed to bring in things, and sometimes you have to import things like vehicles and communications equipment, which can be sensitive. And then some of the challenges are with taxation - because sometimes taxes are 100 percent."
"In Haiti, water trucks were parked for months because of the registration process in the country, which created substantial expenditures in renting local water trucks," says Isabelle Sechaud, IFRC's field logistics manager.
The IDRL guidelines propose exempting relief shipments from customs and taxes; permitting re-exportation once they are no longer needed; temporarily recognizing foreign registered vehicles; and reducing barriers to import of communications equipment and medicines.
Lack of coordination
"A large part of the assistance in the first phase of a new emergency is donated with the heart rather than based on sound humanitarian needs assessments," says Lund.
In 2004, many agencies sent inappropriate or even harmful items, such as expired food and medicines, in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, according to Mosquini.
"There was pretty much a free-for-all at the start of the aid operation," says Lacey-Hall, referring to the tsunami aftermath in Indonesia. "[Lack of coordination] meant there were no clear rules of engagement, that turf battles broke out between aid agencies on who worked where."
The IDRL guidelines say affected states should have primary responsibility and sovereign rights to regulate relief operations, and the right to decide whether to invite in international assistance. International actors are advised to calculate aid priorities based on need alone, not interfere in internal affairs of the affected state and coordinate with domestic actors.